Interview: Tronics

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 12.19.13 in Interviews

When punk collided with pop in the late ’70s, the outsider took center stage. The sudden appearance of eccentric groups with their own strange logic — the Shaggs, Electric Eels — spurred record enthusiasts to hunt for other strange gems, old albums by under-appreciated artists who were overlooked in their own time.

So it’s confounding that Tronics, a London group that formed during the post-punk era, remained obscure, despite frontman Ziro Baby’s genius songwriting ability and strange, mesmerizing star power. In fact, for decades, Tronics remained one of indie’s best-kept secrets. And though, in the ’90s, finding one of their perfect-sounding, criminally underpriced 7″s was the kind of thing a record nerd’s dreams of are made of, during their lifespan they remained a mystery, known only to the most ardent DIY enthusiasts.

Some of that changed in the early ’00s, when a website that appeared to be made in collaboration with the mystery man behind the band quietly surfaced. It told his fantastic back story in three dizzying parts, and it wasn’t long before the man himself — Ziro Baby, but often recording as Zarjaz — was being named-checked as an underground icon in Artforum, and had his songs turned up on the cultishly popular junk-fi compilation series Messthetics, which spawned a whole new wave of cult acclaim and obsession (the San Francisco garage band Sic Alps covered his song “Shark Fucks” on a 7″ they released in 2012).

In recent years, Zarjaz has emerged from obscurity to tour the US as Freakapuss, another one of his many personas, and has collaborated with the Portland-based indie label M’lady’s, who are re-releasing the rare early Tronics album What’s the Hubub, Bub as well as a new compilation of mostly-unheard Tronics recordings entitled Say! What is This?

Tobi Vail caught up with Zarjaz over email to talk about DIY, old, druggy London and getting ripped off by David Bowie.

What was life like when you were recording these Tronics records in the late ’70s?

The area of Earls Court in London, where Tronics HQ was, had the reputation of having more vice than anywhere in Europe. I was there as an artist. I was surrounded by drugs and prostitutes, criminals and crazy people. But I never sold drugs, I never got into smack and I made sure never to exploit anyone. That neighborhood was always a big attraction for police. Being followed by the police on the street or in cars was a normal thing. I was never arrested. Once, they followed me and a girlfriend into the local cemetery as we [were killing time before] her flight to the USA. They jumped out from behind gravestones as we chatted on a bench, watching the wind blowing the trees. I really liked her, and felt bad that they were disturbing us. I always knew they were wasting their time following me. I was just a surrealist musician.

What was Tronics’ relationship to punk? Were you an outsider?

We didn’t really think we were on the punk scene. [We were] told we were punks. I tried not to do those cliché punk things. I had a date with a college girl who told me she had never gone out with a punk before. As you can imagine, the date didn’t go too well.

It was a very beautiful and exciting time. I have always been outside, all my life. I don’t choose to be, I’m just put there and generally kept at arms’ length. When I look at what was [musically] acceptable in the ’80s and ’90s, I’m glad of it. At the same time, then and now, I have always had a lot of amazing friends and known amazing people that appreciate what I do. I understand that what I am, and where I have been, is generally beyond the comprehension of most people. But I don’t reject people because they reject me.

So would you classify Tronics as punk, post-punk, or early indie?

Tronics was all of those. At the time, people were looking for ways to create new scenes, like coming up with new dances and pop culture trends. There was a new dance craze every year or so — the Charleston, the Cakewalk, the Jive. For a short time into the ’80s, it was out of control. We were entering and going out fashions and modes constantly, as people were trying to come up with something new. This is why I say Tronics was part of all those things, because styles were blending into each other so fast. One day we’re New Wave, the next Alternative.

Tronics are said to be one of the first DIY bands — what does that mean? Did you have a fanzine or put on shows or make flyers or anything like that?

I never had time to make a fanzine, and couldn’t if I tried. But I put out a lot of fliers and poster art. I was there when Rough Trade was developing. I saw Rough Trade at a very early stage and nothing like it is today. It was more like something out of Charles Dickens. DIY was new.

There was one Tronics show in particular that I put on with the help of John Herlihey, who was a very well known person on the London scene and Kevin Mooney, later to play bass in Adam and the Ants, in an arts workshop they were running in Battersea. I needed a particular black shirt and trousers for the show and I couldn’t get them anywhere in the UK, so I got a fashion designer to make them for me to my own designs. The show was a blast, but throughout the set, I noticed some guy in my face with a camera, looking at me in a weird way. It turned out that he did PR for David Bowie. A few months later, David Bowie was on the Kenny Everett show doing “Boys Keep Swinging” in an exact copy of my black clothes.

Is it true that Tronics put out one of the first-ever independent cassettes? What gave you the idea to do that?

I was looking to find something to help Tronics stand out from all the hundreds of bands that appeared. A cassette could be produced, but it would only be seen as good for demos, or to hand out to fans. I approached all the distributors I had come to know that were sympathetic towards indie music and I ended up producing the first independent cassette album to be nationally and internationally distributed into mainstream shops.

What about [1981's] What’s The Hubub Bub? This was originally released as a cassette too, right?

What’s The Hubub Bub ties in with all the rapidity of the style changes at the time. Punk had come and gone, New Wave was buzzing and I think Alternative was on its way. So while I was producing the first Tronics cassette album, I was also working on What’s The Hubub Bub with a different lineup. By the time I had recorded this, I thought it was a good idea to release it as a cassette only again. There’s always been something cool about cassettes. It was this release that lead to interest from Alien Records which led to the Love Backed By Force album. I think there were just a few weeks between the two albums.

As rough and primitive as the recordings are, they are exactly how I wanted them. Rough, primitive and urban. I could have chosen any form of expression at the time, but I liked this one. I think it’s a very good example of the principle, “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.” It’s quite incredible that I get the same reactions to the music I make today as Freakapuss that I did to Hubbub.

Were the songs on Say! What is This? ever released before or is this a completely new record?

The idea that led to Say! What Is This? was that Brett Lyman at M’lady’s Rcords originally suggested a double album of What’s the Hubub Bub and other unreleased tracks. We ultimately decided that two albums would be better, and that Say! What Is This? would be good as something special for Tronics fans, to give them something unexpected and rare.

Were any of these songs intended to be released?

Some of the tracks were B-Sides, like “Tonight” and “Goodbye,” and the version of “They’re Talking About Us” appeared on the [1982] Tranzister Sister EP. The others were never previously released. “Spending Time” was a demo for Love Backed By Force, and the recordings of “Punky People” and “Luna Love” were intended for a Tronics release. I had been working a lot with Kid Krupa who had played in the Rezillos and Charlie Frances, especially on live Tronics shows, and I was lucky to get studio time to record with him. I eventually became so embroiled in momentous personal and creative changes that the recordings got lost in the commotion.

Why were Tronics such an obscure group for so many years?

Tronics were as obscure as I wanted them to be. For many years, people had been asking me to reissue the Tronics material, but I always declined. I am Freakapuss now and I don’t need to go back. Even back in 1983 and ’84, Alan McGee was asking me to recreate the “Wild Cat Rock” style, or something like it, just for him. I’ve never wanted to be like those bands that are poor copies of their former selves just for commercial reasons.

Another example was when Eric Hysteric from the Esoterics wanted to release Tronics on his label Orgasm Records, but I couldn’t, despite his greatness, so he released a Zarjaz track, “Some Like it Hard,” instead. It was more or less constant and from all over the world. I did eventually agree to let Chuck Warner release [some songs] on the Messthetics compilations, but nothing big. I still didn’t want Tronics to come out.

I had so many reasons for holding Tronics back, but people around me were convincing me that, despite my own feelings, it was obvious that there were strong feelings for the music. Reissuing Tronics has introduced new people to the band, but it’s mainly served to make the recordings available for the many people who already knew Tronics. These releases are bringing “Tronics People” together. It’s not that Tronics is becoming less obscure so much as it’s the sudden realization of how many people are into Tronics. The interest has never gone away. It was me that kept it locked away for my own personal reasons.

What can you tell us about the music you are making today?

There’s a Freakapuss album called New 21st Century Dimension that has guest appearances from JB Townsend from Crystal Stilts and Marion Herbain from Veronica Falls, who I think are both so great. Hopefully that will be released early next year.

Then there’s these Tronics re-releases on M’lady’s Records that I’m very excited about. M’lady’s are so great. They are not posers. There’s a reissue in the works of the [1986] Inter Block Rock EP on Captured Tracks, who are also an extremely impressive label.

Who are some current bands that you like and what do you like about them?

I’m listening a lot to the rough mixes of a Spider and the Webs track, because it achieves a rare greatness in style, sound and ability that I envy every time I hear it. [Spider & the Webs is Tobi Vail's new band —Ed.]

At this very moment I’m listening to Shark Toys, because their sound and style interests me. I like GURR, the all-girl band from Germany and the USA who have a brilliant attitude and take on things. I like the Oscillation, because unlike some bands that take time going somewhere in their music but never get there, the Oscillation are right there from the start. They also have an amazing light show that’s well worth seeing. And I’m into Sapphire Mansions a lot because of their experimental approach.